The title of Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles doesn’t translate instantly. It isn’t the same as calling a film Filles or Femmes, to call it Elles, a feminine They in French. In English, They comes with sci-fi implications: the suggestion of a looming, ominous mass, alien and terrifying, and somehow united by gender. This image, for Szumowska’s film, is precisely right. In an atmosphere of trying to pin down and play to the female market by marketing directly to them (Lena Dunham’s Girls is the preeminent example) Szumowska’s film, intentionally or not, puts across the notion that the idea of women, of femaleness in general, is not something to be translated for the benefit of those who fail to understand it.
Less boldly, it’s a play on words. Juliette Binoche (brilliant as always) plays Anne, a journalist doing a piece for Elle magazine about college students doubling as prostitutes to pay the bills. These prostitutes are notable for their age, their otherness, (one is lower class, another is a Polish import living in France), and their seeming to ‘know better’. They are educated girls who like to make money, and who aspire to all that an upper-class status can bring.“I feel like you can still smell it on me, ” one of the girls, Charlotte, tells Anne in an interview. The admission, coming in sequence after a rapid cut from a scene showing Charlotte giving one of her clients head, Anne, and the audience, assumes she’s talking about the job.
“No,” she says “it’s something worse than a blow job.” She’s talking about the housing projects she grew up in, the cheap clothes, and the difference she knows she’ll always carry with her that separates her from Anne’s own upper classness which, even if we hadn’t seen her cooking with oysters and fine wine in scenes previous, we’d know simply from the way it radiates off of her. You can read all the Proust and Flaubert you want, Charlotte mournfully admits, but in the eyes of others you’ll most likely always reek of the place where you were born.
As powerful as these discussions are throughout the film (and there are many of them), the most powerful thing about Elles is the cutting, which shifts from scenes of dialogue between Anne and the girls, to the girls and their clients, to the girls having sex for fun to Anne at home, preparing a dinner for her husband’s boss, to porn, to Anne on the floor of her bathroom, masturbating. Classical music plays often, and loudly, throughout.
As in any film about prostitution—really films about sex in general—the question of morality lingers. But in the case of Elles, it’s not so much what the moral is, as, is there going to be one. The suggestion of one arises in a late scene during which one of the young prostitutes is raped in the ass by a champagne bottle, a la Fatty Arbuckle—a case of abuse which Szumowska said, in the lives of similar subjects she studied for the film, was ‘rare’ in an audience Q&A afterward. She expressed that, rather than moralizing, she wanted to have an open portrayal of a certain lifestyle, and of sexuality as a choice. While the film works on this level, one feels it could have been bolder on many others. Yet the idea of the title has a certain power. The incommunicability of certain feelings, certain identities, and even impulses, is mirrored in a culture’s lack of interest to understand such things. Anne is, at the end, still a prisoner of domesticity. “I’m not sure they’re prostitutes,” she says to her husband in a late scene, “at least, any more than the rest of us.” After having spent the past two hours comparing and contrasting the life of a working woman against the lives of Working Girls, we can all too easily see her point.